Reflecting on Node 2015

mohonk-sceneryAfter an information-fueled three days, our team has returned from Mohonk Mountain House, where we held our sixth annual internal engineering conference, Node.

While Node started out as a development-only retreat, it has since become an engineering-wide conference consisting of our development, data science, product, quality assurance, and operations teams. As everyone in the technology industry has experienced at one time or another, it’s hard to find time to get to know peers, learn new things, and stay on top of organizational objectives when one is heads-down on a project; this is why we created Node.

Node is designed to provide our organization with a dedicated event, away from the office, to share knowledge, learn something new, and get to know each other in a collaborative environment. The first, knowledge-sharing, is accomplished via conference-like sessions and workshops presented by our own internal colleagues.

This year, we had a number of internal, team-oriented, tracks. Within each track was a presentation or workshop related to that technology or team. As an example, Corky Brown and Bill Sykes gave a kick-ass workshop on development with our new client-side rendered web code, Phoenix. Likewise, our new Director of Data Science, Anton Slutsky, Ph.D., presented, “Data Science @ MeetMe,” a session designed to give everyone a basic understanding of Data Science, Big Data, its importance, and its role in our organization. In addition to learning more about the work other teams are doing or how to use some of our new tools, we also bring in external speakers, who provide us with experience and insight outside of our day-to-day work.

seb-imgAs Node is composed of individuals with varying degrees of technical depth, we try our best to attract external speakers who provide experience and content beneficial to everyone. Oftentimes, these speakers are aligned with either a task or a technology we’re working on, or one we plan to put into effect in the coming year. Given the significant effort our engineering team has put into Cucumber this year, we felt it imperative to spend a considerable amount of time focused on quality. For that reason, we invited Seb Rose, co-author of The Cucumber for Java Book, to spend two days with our team.

Seb covered agile development concepts, BDD/TDD, and detailed aspects of feature/scenario development with Cucumber. Unlike other presenters, who lecture for hours on end, Seb’s group-oriented hands-on approach was well-received and left many with a better understanding of not only the concepts surrounding Cucumber, but also the best ways to use the technology itself.

Alternatively, for those who wanted something a little more technical, we asked William Kennedy, author of Go in Action, to give us an overview. Bill crammed two days worth of Go programming language training into only eight hours. To accomplish this, we skipped the hands-on examples.

node-2016-dinner2In addition to the content, we spent the remaining hours sleeping or in spontaneous team-building activities. Whether it was sitting together watching the Philadelphia Eagles vs. Dallas Cowboys game, hanging out at lunch, laughing at dinner, sightseeing, group photography, relaxing in the lounge, playing Heads Up!, or participating in a highly-competitive game of Texas Hold’em, we spent a good amount of time getting to know and collaborate with each other. This was especially useful for our new team members.

Lastly, every Node is a learning experience and improving it is an iterative process. What did we learn this year? For one, programming language trainings should be less intense. Some thought the Go training pace was fine, while others felt it was a bit too rushed. Likewise, everyone wants a little time after lunch to explore the venue we’re at. We’ll be sure to take that into account next year.

All in all, it was another great experience for the team. I’d like to thank everyone who attended, presented, and helped make it happen. Specifically, on the engineering side, with input and feedback from multiple teams, Node was planned primarily by our own DevOps Lead Architect, Jason Lotito, who did an outstanding job. With everyone reinvigorated, on the same page, and understanding what our 2016 goals are, I’m excited to see what we will accomplish!

Node 2012 Belated notes

Third year running we have had our developer offsite.  Three days to share knowledge, learn something new and some team building. It generally happens to coincide with a natural disaster. This year was no exception – Sandy.  We made some changes this year to involve the community outside with some knowledge sharing and internally team building with a larger part of the organization.
Pre-event.  We encouraged members of our team to attend the Lehigh Valley Startup Weekend to support efforts to build up tech in this region. The outcome? Our team, with members of the Lehigh Valley Community, placed First and Third (Lehigh Valley Startup Weekend Winners).

Day one. We did something completely new, something that most of the team does not work with currently.  This year, full on Hadoop. Much appreciation to the Chariot Solutions team (they were the only company we talked to that understood what we were trying to do!) for pulling together a one day hackers express for a team that is less than 50% of java developers. Everyone got something out of it.
Day Two and Three. We ran a wide range of internal sessions, almost all hands on, writing code. Writing PHP Extensions, Building on Node.js, and Redis basics to name a few. Our Android and iOS teams led 101 training, getting everyone ramped on writing mobile apps.
Day Three. We concluded with a trip over to Lehigh University where Jonah gave a public presentation, which I have renamed “Algorithms and Anecdotes”.  Jonah, I and others from the MeetMe team talked to some problems and solutions that a growing social network faces.
This year’s experience expanded with our QA team running their own internal event with a focus on cross training and improving skills. A first for our QA team and a great experience to build on for next year.
Normally we integrate team building within our developer offsite, but this year we expanded to incorporate all of engineering, and did it when the developer team returned. Finding the right company and program to work for our team was not simple.  I would suggest three steps to finding the right company to work with : (a) research and identify at least 4-5 (b) have multiple calls with them and make sure they are asking you good, detailed questions and (c) check references. This helped weed out a few companies immediately. Special thanks to Alan Lowis from Professional Team Building for bringing together some knowledge and special moments.
Ending the developers offsite week with our own internal HACKD was terrific and culminated in some great projects in both software and hardware!